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Metamorphosis: Clothing and Identity

I have a confession to make. While I love art in pretty much any form, the medium that always gets my little heart to skip a beat is textiles. Even better if those textiles are wearable. When I saw that the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles was opening a new exhibition on the Bay Area artwear movement, I pretty much yelled “DIBS!” in my email to my fellow Art-Nerd writers. Sorry, guys!

Drawn Copper, 2011-2012. Detail. Laura Raboff. Photo by author.

Drawn Copper, 2011-2012. Detail. Laura Raboff. Photo by author.

Metamorphosis: Clothing & Identity

January 29 – April 27

San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

Hours: Wednesday – Friday 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday & Sunday – 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

First Friday of every month – 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. (Pay what you can)

For those who are not familiar with the rich history of the Bay Area artwear movement, here’s a very brief introduction: In the late 1960s, a group of San Francisco based artists synthesized into a cohesive movement centered around funky wearable art. This took many forms, but the key concept here is that this was the spiritual love child of the arts & crafts movement in the early part of the 20th century. Some artists modified and personalized clothing that could be purchased off the rack in any clothing store, while others focused on traditional crafts like knitting and crochet, and still others started exploring textile creation using a combination of quilting techniques, dyeing/folding/stitching/glueing/painting whatever they could get their hands on. The Bay Area artwear community flourished from the ’70s to ’90s, but has sort of fallen away from public consciousness in the last ten or so years, for the most part relegated to token nods at huge institutions, where they are overshadowed by the big name artists like Nick Cave, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake.

But at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, I knew they would carefully consider their exhibition, aware that many locals still vividly remember the artwear scene of yore. I spoke with the curator of the show, Deborah Corsini, and she explained the painstaking effort that went into considering the founders of the artwear movement as well as the new blood, noting, “Wearable art is still very much alive.” And as this show proves, indeed it is.

The exhibition begins with the nascent artwear movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s with four carefully preserved outfits from Levi’s® 1973 denim art competition, on loan from the jeans company’s collection. These psychedelic artefacts are dappled with political commentary of the time, assaulting the viewer with bright painted shapes, funky appliques, and of course, Richard Nixon’s likeness peering out from behind the fly-opening of one pair of jeans. Sadly, Levi’s® requested no photographs of these pieces, so you’ll have to see them for yourself, in all their far-out glory.

Moving through the years into the 1980s, the piece that caught my eye instantly was Cocoon Outfit by Ellen Hauptil. Admirers of fashion history will immediately catch the nod to Mariano Fortuny’s elegant pleated gowns from the early twentieth century. Rather than work in silk and hand set the tiny pleats, Hauptil created her pieces using polyester and heat-set the pleats using an industrial machine. The end result is a durable, elegant, and above all forgiving silhouette.

Cocoon Coat, Ellen Hauptil, 1980.

Cocoon Outfit, 1980. Detail. Ellen Hauptil, 1980. Photo by author.

The artist, however, that drew me to this show in the first place was Angelina De Antonis, the creative spark behind Ocelot Clothing. I had met Angelina almost ten years ago, myself as an undergrad at UC Davis, and she an upcoming clothing designer working out of a lovely industrial space in Oakland, barely making ends meet but managing to pull off the impossible: Offering a living wage to the tiny cohort of employees who helped assemble her designs. She showed us how to do the resist dyeing technique called itajime–the hallmark of her clothing line–and then let us paw through her samples. I remember thinking, “This chick is living the dream.” Almost ten years later, I was thrilled to see her on the list of artists included on the roster of Metamorphosis, and see that she’s still producing gorgeous clothing pieces.

Angelina’s collection is displayed beautifully in the gallery space, with several pieces on display, and even samples for museum goers to fondle (that’s the difficulty with the textile crowd… They want to touch everything).

Three outfits by Angelina De Antonis. Photo by author.

Three outfits by Angelina De Antonis. Photo by author.

Another artist that caught my attention was Carol Lee Shanks, with her two indigo dyed dresses, that could definitely pass for something worn on Downton Abbey, with the strong, columnar lines of the nineteen-teens and twenties.

Indigo dyed dresses, by Carol Lee Shanks.

Indigo dyed dresses, by Carol Lee Shanks.

Finally, the real attention grabber is a walk-through installation by Isaac Amala and Liz Simpson, titled The Heart is a Flexible Space. Created entirely out of silk neckties, and draped over a yurt-like structure, the viewer is invited to pet, caress, and stroke the swirling columns of color and texture. I tried to get a photo to capture its magnificence, but alas, my smart phone wasn’t up to the challenge, so I will have to leave you with this detail:

The Heart is a Flexible Space, 2012-2013. Detail. Isaac Amala & Liz Simpson.

The Heart is a Flexible Space, 2012-2013. Detail. Isaac Amala & Liz Simpson.

If you’re planning on taking advantage of First Fridays Art Walk in the SoFA district, definitely pop into the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. Metamorphosis: Clothing and Identity runs from January 29 – April 27, 2014. Admission is pay what you can on the First Friday artwalk, and donations are always welcome!

3 Responses to “Metamorphosis: Clothing and Identity”
  1. Amy Osterholm says:

    Thanks for a great review. I learned a lot and it made me want to go see this show. The reviewer was knowledgeable and informative while remaining eminently readable. More!

  2. Sarah Lorraine says:

    Thanks, Amy! I’m glad you enjoyed it! If you’re in the neighborhood tomorrow, it’s the First Friday Art Walk in San Jose’s SoFA district, and the Quilt & Textile Museum is participating.

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